People still ask, and they probably always will, about that day five years ago at Pohoiki when everything changed for Ulu “Ulu Boy” Napeahi.
He is a 21-year-old professional surfer from Kalapana with a rising desire to join the Triple Crown of surfing, which, if you aren’t familiar with the lexicon, equates to the World Series, the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl of the sport.
He harbors no fears, not a single one, about his ability. A tranquil, focused mind has become his natural state, his home, his present and his future, even now when the family has evacuated their home, saying safely with friends and family in safe locations.
He’s been back home for a couple weeks and he’ll be leaving around the end of the month for more international competition, grateful for the experience that molded him.
It all goes back to Pohoiki in 2013 when Ulu Boy was attacked by a shark while he surfed at Dead Trees, his favorite spot on the Big Island.
He was 16 at the time, a full 12 years after he started surfing, following the course of everyone in his family.
“I’ve been so fortunate,” he said the other day, “I was born into a very supportive family, a beautiful family that has lived in and been a part of the ocean their whole lives. This is what we do, and it’s beautiful.”
Understand, all of this gets back to the shark attack, the shock, the multiple bites to his legs, the panic on the shore.
Here’s the catch, and the key to life, as we know it.
Ulu Boy accepted the attack saying, “I was in (the shark’s) territory, I cannot blame the shark, he was doing what he does.”
If you follow sports and coaching chatter, you have probably heard the chicle, “The measure of a person isn’t what happens to you in life, it’s how you respond to what happens.”
This rising challenger in the pro surfing world figured it out on his own, because this is his life.
“I look at it like, I didn’t decide to pursue this. The ocean, I feel, chose me,” he said. “What happened that day? It was all good, I was encouraged to go to counseling and things, but I dealt with it on my own, I took it all into my heart, I did a lot of thinking about it, and it’s like I came out on the other side.
“I’m completely at peace with it,” he said. “If it weren’t for the scars, I would never even think about it, I don’t think about it unless I see the scars again. I did some self-therapy, I got through it.
“It made me better.”
That day a friend and former lifeguard, Dallas O’Shaughnessy, saw the incident, swam out and rescued Napeahi.
“I didn’t realize what happened,” Ulu Boy said. “When it did, there was no pain, I felt nothing, because I was in shock. It wasn’t until I got to land and saw the bleeding that I knew what had happened.”
Roughly 60 days after the attack, he went back to the same spot. He stood on the shore a for a time, alone with his thoughts, gazing at the ocean, at the exact location where it happened, then he grabbed his board and headed for the spot.
The only true healing, they say, comes through the original wound and that was what he somehow knew down inside. He knew, without asking, that avoiding Pohoiki, never returning to Dead Trees, would not resolve a thing. Whatever it was shock, fear, anxiety, a combination of all, some of this, some of that, Ulu Boy knew what he had to do.
Friends and family were there that emotional day when he got back on the board at Pohoiki.
“It took some time,” he said, “but I’m at peace with the whole thing, I always say ‘The ocean is not my place, I don’t live there, I just come to play.’ I’m glad it all happened, I’m better now, in every way.
“It was the best experience of my life, for sure, it made me a little more of who I am, I learned and grew very much from the experience.”
A 21-year-old who attended Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science, Napeahi smiles proudly when he says, “I’ve never bought a beer,” and neither does he smoke, he’s a pure heart with a meaningful understanding of the body-mind connection.
It’s why he’s so good, recently placing third in a pro meet in Tahiti, eyeing the globally elite Triple Crown as the place he rightfully belongs. In a sport that may be experiencing a transition to an era of wave machines like those backed by legendary surfer Kelly Slater, Napeahi will remain traditional.
“Surfing might really blow up,” he said, “and I guess it’s good that people in the middle of the country, thousands of miles from an ocean, can experience what it’s like to surf.
“But that’s not what motivates me. This is my lifestyle and a big part of it, probably the biggest part, is that you have to use your mind and body to react out there because anything can happen.”
This isn’t a bobsled course, or a race track you’ve practiced on a hundred times. You’re out there, alone, and while you may be competing with someone else, you aren’t playing defense, it’s all what you do in unpredictable situations.
“It’s not like boxing where one guy knocks out the other guy,” he said. “When you surf, you’re relying on your muscle memory, you are trying to stay present and anticipate at the same time. It makes you feel so alive.”
The larger point is that the new wave machines may develop an offshoot of surfing like indoor soccer once was for the real game, but for traditionalists like Ulu Boy, the true challenge is not found in a wave machine.
It’s out there, in the ocean, where you don’t live, but you go to play, with all the respect you can bring.
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